Boris calls for voluntary museum charges

By Liz Stephens

The mayor of London suggested today that London’s museums and galleries should introduce voluntary visitor charging to tackle the funding crisis in the arts.

Commenting in a discussion with the artistic director of the Old Vic theatre, Kevin Spacey, at the Victoria and Albert museum this morning, Boris Johnson said: “It might be a good idea for people to price the value of their visit. I think it would work extremely well and I think we should do it”.

The mayor made his comments after visiting New York last week, where there is a system of “recommended” entrance fees to galleries such as the world famous Metropolitan Museum of Art.

However, his comments were the source of some confusion for those working in London arts institutions as many already have collection boxes asking for voluntary fees in their entrances.

The mayor also warned that arts funding in the capital – which has taken a big hit due to the recession – may not pick up again until 2011.

“We have to rise to the challenge brought about by the downturn,” he added.

“Arts and culture are not a luxury, they are part of this city’s DNA, its USP. It is why people want to live and work here, and seven out of 10 tourists say it is a reason for their visit.”

Mr Spacey agreed that the arts occupied a unique and important position in the UK. However, he warned that the recession continued to be very difficult.

“Many arts institutions are suffering and, without political will and both corporate and public support, some will struggle to survive,” he said.

“If we don’t act now, we risk allowing our rich cultural life to be diminished, available only to the minority who can afford high West End prices or rarefied arts events.”

Tourism is worth £16 billion to London’s economy and, in the advent of the abolition of entrance fees to national museums, overall visitor numbers increased by 70 per cent in the first year alone.

Mark Jones, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, warned that an adoption of the US system – which he said puts a “pressure” on visitors to pay – may discourage visitors and do more harm than good.

“We don’t want people to feel inhibited because they’re under a moral pressure to pay up,” he said.

However, Mr Johnson said that a voluntary fee would make “cynical young people” appreciate and value their experience instead of taking it for granted.